William McGowan is the author of “Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of the New York Times Means For America.”
Formerly editor of the Washington Monthly, McGowan is a media fellow at Social Philosophy and Policy Center. His work has been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times Magazine, the New Republic, and the National Review, among other places. His last book, “Coloring the News: How Political Correctness Has Corrupted American Journalism,” won the National Press Club Award.
McGowan recently agreed to answer 10 questions from The Daily Caller about his new book:
1. Why did you decide to write the book?
Journalism is one of America’s more important democratic institutions. For better or worse, the Times is still central to our policy debates, our national conversation and whatever common culture we have left. It once represented the gold standard of American journalism. So I was curious what had happened, how bad the tarnish was and what policies and personalities were most responsible.
2. What has the fall of the New York Times meant for America, if anything?
The Times is the Harvard of news. It is at the top of the journalistic food chain and what it says is news sets the agenda for much of the rest of the press. That might be changing somewhat, but it’s still important. The problem is that the Times has seen a lessening in its commitment to agnostic, professionally detached and neutral reporting in favor of advancing its political values in a way very correctly characterized, in many cases, as “cheerleading.” Yet this kind of p.c. boosterism doesn’t always work, as the many unintended consequences of the Times reporting and commentary have shown. In fact, it often generates a backlash. Most recently, the paper’s antagonism and mischaracterizations of the Tea Party movement contributed to the midterm “shellacking” of the Democratic Party. If it can be said, as I did in a piece for Real Clear Politics, that the Obama administration outsourced health-care reform to an out-of-touch Congress, it could also be said that it outsourced its broader public relations effort to the Times, as well as MSNBC and Comedy Central — the Don Drapers of the Democratic Party, if you will.
3. Is there an individual or a group of individuals who deserve the lion’s share of the blame for the decline of the New York Times?
I think the current publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who has been in control now for almost 20 years bears the most responsibility. Granted, in the last few years, he and other news executives, at the Times and in the news industry at large, have been dealt a bad hand with loss of revenues from the competition of the Internet. But Sulzberger has played that hand quite badly, allowing ideology to subtract from the paper’s credibility and gravitas. And unfortunately, the rot at the top is not going away short of a change of leadership. Yes, the Times has made efforts at reform, especially since the Blair scandal and other institutional embarrassments. But like a recovering addict who pledges sobriety, they’ve fallen off the wagon with too much regularity and its reform initiatives have had only spotty success.